By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 28, 2007
Evelyn Knight, who began her singing career in Washington nightclubs and emerged as a popular recording star in the 1940s and '50s, died Sept. 28 of lung cancer at a nursing home in San Jose. She was 89.
Between 1944 and 1951, Miss Knight had 13 Top 40 hits, including two that reached No. 1. She was a headliner at posh supper clubs and hotels across the country and, from her early days at the Claridge Hotel in Washington, was known as the "lass with the delicate air."
After recording with Bing Crosby and appearing on network radio and television shows, she abruptly retired from show business in her 30s, never to return to the spotlight.
Miss Knight came of musical age at the same time as Dinah Shore, Jo Stafford and Peggy Lee, and for a time she was their equal in popularity. She was known for a sophisticated, witty singing style.
Her versatile voice was well suited for aching torch songs and the novelty tunes that were her biggest hits. Her first chart-topper, "A Little Bird Told Me," sold more than 2 million copies and was perched at No. 1 for seven weeks in early 1949. Later that year, she had a second No. 1 hit, "Powder Your Face With Sunshine."
"She embraced all sorts of music," her sister, June McCormick, said last week. "She knew all the standards and excelled on ballads. I can't think of one she couldn't or didn't sing."
Blond and statuesque -- "5-11 in heels," her sister said -- Miss Knight first appeared in Washington nightclubs in the mid-1930s under the name Honey Davis, when she was 16.
Married shortly before her 18th birthday in 1935, she began to perform as Evelyn Knight. By 1939, she was so well known in Washington that she made headlines when she "suffered nose injuries" as a passenger in a minor traffic accident.
She worked at the Shoreham and Wardman Park hotels before moving to the Claridge's King Cole Room, where she sang six nights a week for almost five years.
After leaving for New York in 1944, Miss Knight headlined at the Blue Angel nightclub and the Plaza Hotel's Persian Room. She signed with Decca Records, and in 1945 released her debut single, "Dance With a Dolly (With a Hole in Her Stocking)," which hit the Top 10.
By the late 1940s, Miss Knight had moved to Los Angeles, where she headlined at Ciro's and the Cocoanut Grove, two nightclubs frequented by Hollywood stars. Her musical arranger was composer Victor Young (Crosby's music director), she sang alongside Tony Martin and Gordon MacRae and had enough money in the bank to help her mother retire and to send her sister to college.
"I would walk into the college coffee shop and hear her singing on the jukebox all the time," said McCormick, who lives in St. Louis. "I was so proud of her."
From 1950 to 1953, Miss Knight toured the country, appearing at top hotels, including the Palmer House in Chicago, the Brown Palace in Denver and the Copley Plaza in Boston. Her sister was her driver and assistant, and her pianist and conductor was Ray Sinatra (a cousin of Frank).
Miss Knight's final hit, "My Heart Cries for You," a duet with country singer Red Foley, came in 1951. When she married songwriter John Lehmann in 1954, supper clubs were beginning to close, and musical tastes were turning toward the raucous sounds of rock-and-roll.
Before her 37th birthday, Miss Knight retired and never performed in public again.
"She knew she'd paid her dues," her sister said. "She went out on top, and she didn't want to go back."
Evelyn Davis was born Dec. 31, 1917, in Reedville, Va., on the Northern Neck. Her family would often sing on their front porch, taking requests from neighbors. Miss Knight's later singing style had lilting hints of her Virginia heritage.
She moved to Arlington County with her mother in 1926, after her father died. Her talent, her sister said, "was all God-given. To my knowledge, she didn't have any formal training."
Her first marriage, to newspaper photographer Andrew B. Knight, ended in divorce. Their son, Andrew Knight Jr., died in 1989.
Her second husband died in 2000.
In addition to her sister, survivors include a daughter, Fran Lehmann of San Jose, and three grandchildren.
In the 1950s, Miss Knight returned to New York and worked in the music publishing business for several years. When she was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1961, she was not told. In 1967, she moved to Phoenix, where she lived in obscurity, even after her early hits were reissued on compact disc.
She worked as an office manager and babysitter, and her only singing came in church choirs. Almost no one she met knew a thing about her glamorous past.